It’s been possible to play Nintendo Switch games on devices that aren’t the Nintendo Switch for a while now. This is nothing new. But, over the last couple of weeks, I really feel like I’ve sensed a shift in the scale of the conversation – and though it’s anecdotal, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 feels like a sea change.
To explain what I mean, let me give you a little bit of website inside baseball. As you’ve probably noticed, game guides are a major part of the business model for outlets like VG247. What guides we produce are determined by two key factors.
The first is intuition – we play the game and figure out what we feel people are going to get stuck on or worry about enough to pick up their phone and punch in a search. Once a game is released, we can track what people are typing into Google, Bing, and other such search engines more directly. And if we see a particular search spiking in popularity and frequency, we know that we should probably do a guide on it.
Everyone is in on this. It’s certainly no internet secret. It’s all part of the dark art of ‘Search Engine Optimization’, a difficult tightrope to walk between providing useful information, and over-optimizing pages so that they read like they were written by a robot. Some are good at it, some aren’t. But one interesting thing about search trends is that they often give you a glimpse into the psyche and interests of gamers around a particular release.
Sometimes, for instance, we see voice actors pop off – presumably from people wowed by a performance or smitten with a character’s voice. We see spikes in searches for fan art; usually in the most brazenly fanservice-baiting characters, obviously. If something like a bug or funny line of dialogue goes viral, we can track its ascendancy to meme status as it spreads.
Such is the case with Xenoblade Chronicles 3. This is a game with plenty of labyrinthine quests, heroes to unlock, a class system to navigate, and more. Over its opening week there was one notable staple to the search traffic around the game, however: piracy.
It’s all anecdotal, of course, but as I tried to see where people were getting hung up on elements of Xenoblade 3’s design, every other search query felt like it was about emulation. Or obtaining the game illegally. Or tweaking emulator settings. Or downloading new shaders to get the best possible appearance out of the game.
This was just my personal experience toying with various search-tracking tools ranging from simple free tools to eye-wateringly expensive and in-depth premium trackers. The story was fairly similar across both avenues. For things to pop off as a search trend there does need to be a fairly significant number of people typing these piracy-related terms into Google and other search engines. This has happened with other Switch titles – I remember several similar topics trending for Pokemon Legends Arceus and Metroid Dread – but the scale of it over the first weekend of Xenoblade Chronicles 3’s release felt much more significant.
This wasn’t helped by the game leaking ahead of launch, of course. Many media outlets ran headlines like “Xenoblade Chronicles 3 has leaked and is fully playable on the Steam Deck”, which felt like a piratical call-to-action. These headlines also highlight Nintendo’s main problem, however.
Switch emulation has pretty much always been very advanced despite the console’s relative youth. That’s a consequence of its relatively modest power level. But now it is so easy that many Switch games are now playable off-Switch on day one – or in the case of Xenoblade, day minus-four. Then there’s the Switch’s power level itself: where expansive games like Xenoblade often struggle, better performance can be had elsewhere.
Slowly, the temptations for enthusiasts to do the bad thing stack up. Before these people inevitably pop up in the comments, mixed in amongst this are people who own the Switch, and buy the games, but choose to emulate them for performance reasons. Search trends show that a whole lot of people are looking for a game download, though. How many of them really own the game? I’m not denying these people exist – but I am doubtful it’s many.
Players who were around 15 years ago know where this leads. On Nintendo DS, piracy went from a complicated affair to a trivial matter practically overnight. It was one of the most successful consoles of all time, and the common piracy methods still required the hardware – but over time, software sales really began to suffer, which had a knock-on effect on the games.
As Chris Dring of GamesIndustry.biz pointed out last year when similar trends appeared for Metroid Dread, the ‘R4 Card’ and its peers did such damage to the DS that some publishers quit making games for the console at all. Others moved planned DS games to other platforms.
The Switch isn’t at this point yet. In fact, it’s quite a way off. Crucially, playing Switch games is still significantly more complicated than those bonkers days when pirating a DS game would take about five minutes, most of which was spent navigating a dodgy website. This is why I saw search terms around patches and shaders and all that guff. But it does feel like it’s getting easier with every major release – and these things are a slippery slope.
It’s worrying for the Switch, especially with the memory of how much piracy took the wind out of the sails of the DS in its later years in mind. In that case, all Nintendo could do to stop it was to release a new generation of hardware. And it feels like this is going the same way.
It’s easy to respond to this flippantly. You know, with that gif of Woody Harrelson wiping away tears with money from the movie Zombieland, or by saying boo hoo, poor multi-million dollar corporation – and I get it. But once piracy becomes endemic on a platform, it impacts all developers equally, large and small, and even begins to have an effect on projects in development. I hope it doesn’t get that bad. But it sure feels like the genie is out of the bottle now.